A note on climate change from Bouvard and Pecuchet

November 30, 2012
by Guy Davenport

by Guy Davenport

From Flaubert’s story of the two clerks:

 …[they] bought M. Depping’s work on The Marvels and Beauties of Nature in France…But soon there will be no more to discover.  …burning mountains are becoming extinct, natural glaciers are getting warmer

Written over a period of twenty years, but published only after his death in 1880.  He claimed to have read over 1500 books in preparation for writing it.


Updike and Out!

November 27, 2012

I have just read what is considered one of John Updike’s best novels, Rabbit Redux, the second of four telling the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom’s life.  I found it to border on revolting, almost claustrophobic in its ‘conservative’ resignation to…well, almost everything, misogynistic of course, smug and obtuse about race in America – I could go on.  Updike is obviously an extremely intelligent man, and he writes beautifully, but what is style without content?  What is intelligence without critical appreciation?  Writing a novel isn’t a practical matter, just laying it all out, like engineering!  If you really want a good take-down of the man’s work, you cannot do better than the Gore Vidal in this review of Updike’s memoir and (then) latest novel.

My first exposure to Updike was Roger’s Version, which seemed little more than trash to me, but I was assured by fans that it was the very worst of this prolific writer’s output.  I had read some of his literary reviews and found them sensitive and interesting:  I’d even liked a short story and poem or two that I’d run across.  Time to give him another chance I thought.  While Rabbit Redux is a world away from Roger’s Version, the themes and content are very similar, and I’m done with Mr. Updike.

I had to grit my teeth to finish Redux, it was so deeply boring.  Harry/Rabbit understands little, questions nothing, and acts on instinct, all the while claiming to feel guilt.  I think this is how Updike seeks to portray the beautiful ordinariness of peoples’ lives.  Harry also hits his wife and the eighteen-year old rich drug addict runaway whom he takes in after his wife leaves him.  He and a loony black radical, another house guest  the one pushing dope on the girl, use her as their sex slave while they read Frederick Douglas’ autobiography to one another.  Harry also has a kid who witnesses much of this, whom Harry give beer to drink, and before whom he swears profusely and smokes pot.  He also complains the world is going to hell and that hippies have no respect for their country – go figure.

It sounds melodramatic, and maybe even interesting, but it’s all so flat, so filled with descriptions of the material minutiae of the 1960s, and the people all seem on autopilot, that it is simply excruciating.  Updike is considered a giant of the realist tradition, but to me, none of it seems real: more like the fantasy of reality imagined by an overly literary and intellectual man who is for some reason preoccupied with religion and authority.  Consider:  Harry works as a linotype operator, and comes from a working class family.  His sister goes to Hollywood to become an actress but ends up as an expensive whore.  Everyone in the family seems fine with this:  not a peep about choices, lifestyle, disappointment, anger, whatever, when she breezes home for a few days.  She and Harry chat about fucking a lot.  Just like brothers and sisters everywhere, right?  Maybe I’m naïve…

I could go on a lot about everything in this book that I didn’t like, didn’t believe, or couldn’t fathom, it was so elaborately pointless – the extended descriptions of Harry’s masturbating for example.  The lame discussions of the politics of the Vietnam War.  The constant looming of sex as a instinctual drive that seems to give no one pleasure.  The fact that neither Harry nor anybody else seems to want to try to figure out a way to do something with their lives that satisfies them.  Harry’s love for his son that seems limited to his view of him as a biological extension of himself and that certainly does not involve any care for his welfare beyond asking the drug addicts he harbors not to shoot up in front of him.  And… oh, never mind.

He sure does write sentences well, though.


Melville’s Encantadas

November 20, 2012

Melville’s sketches on the Enchanted Isles (The Encantadas) begins with a selection from Spencer’s The Faerie Queeneand continues with this wholly unjustified slur on iguanas.

Another feature in these isles is their emphatic uninhabitableness. It is deemed a fit type of all-forsaken overthrow that the jackal should den in the wastes of weedy Babylon, but the Encantadas refuse to harbor even the outcasts of the beasts. Man and wolf alike disown them. Little but reptile life is here found: tortoises, lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguana. No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss.


Melville on Vere on Melville

November 19, 2012

From Billy Budd, by Herman Melville, on Captain Vere, emphasis added:

… not only did the captain’s discourse never fall into the jocosely familiar, but in illustrating any point touching the stirring personages and events of the time, he would cite some historical character or incident of antiquity with the same easy air that he would cite from the moderns. He seemed unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff company such allusions, however pertinent they might really be, were altogether alien to men whose reading was mainly confined to the journals. But considerateness in such matters is not easy in natures constituted like Captain Vere’s. Their honesty prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier.

I think he could have been describing himself and his own prose.


Soul

September 27, 2012

Soul is a novella by Andrey Platonov, who also wrote the fascinating, disturbing, and enigmatic Foundation Pit.  Thanks again to the NYR Books imprint for publishing these new translations.  The story tells of a young engineer who returns to his homeland to ‘save’ the Nation that gave him birth.  It’s a very mystical and dreamlike take on Stalin and the ‘nationalities problem.’  It reads like a metaphysical poem crossed with a J.G. Ballard story, and the language is less difficult than that of The Foundation Pit, but no less precisely styled, at least as far as translations allow us to glimpse it.

The ethnic group from which the hero springs inhabits the area shown in the yellow circle of the map above, one of my collection.  I like maps of that region:  they are so incomplete, so lacking in clear national boundaries, standing in the cross-roads of colliding and migrating cultures.  Also, the Aral Sea is there, a great monument to modern hydrological radicalism.  The NYRB edition includes a map of the region:  the different shape of the Aral is not due only to changes in mapping science in the intervening 300 years; it’s disappearing rapidly.

I have not read all of the stories in this collection, but The Return, the wrenching tale of a WWII veteran coming home after the war, and The Third Son, the very short story of the return home for the funeral of their mother of an old man’s six sons, are remarkable.  Both stories leave us with a sense of the transcendent humanity inherent in universal domestic events.

Platonov was a remarkable genius.


Paradise Lost and some paintings…

September 23, 2012

babel

But God who oft descends to visit men
Unseen, and through thir habitations walks
To mark thir doings, them beholding soon,
Comes down to see thir Citie, ere the Tower
Obstruct Heav’n Towrs, and in derision sets
Upon thir Tongues a various Spirit to rase
Quite out thir Native Language, and instead
To sow a jangling noise of words unknown:
Forthwith a hideous gabble rises loud
Among the Builders; each to other calls
Not understood, till hoarse, and all in rage,
As mockt they storm; great laughter was in Heav’n
And looking down, to see the hubbub strange
And hear the din; thus was the building left
Ridiculous, and the work Confusion nam’d.

from Paradise Lost Book XII

And from an earlier passage in the poem, where Satan meets Sin and Death (I think he is kin to both of them…) guarding the gates of hell, James Gillray drew inspiration for one of his most popular caricatures.  (In Sin, Death and the Devil (1792). Pitt is Death and Thurlow Satan, with Queen Charlotte as Sin in the middle.)  Then Jacques Louis David somehow took it into his head to use the Gillray’s pose for his Rape of the Sabine Women.  More here.


Paradise Lost: the Movie

September 9, 2012

… so sore
The griding sword with discontinuous wound
Passd through him, but th’ Ethereal substance clos’d
Not long divisible, and from the gash
A stream of Nectarous humor issuing flow’d
Sanguin, such as Celestial Spirits may bleed,
And all his Armour staind ere while so bright.

Satan battles Michael, and Micheal’s sword slices through him, but no matter, he heals right up.  I see CGI effects doing great here. 

[Note:  It seems there has never been a movie treatment of Milton's epic, but somebody in 2007 was thinking of it!  (NYTimes Article).  A web-search today turned up recent news that the project was killed.]


Paradise Lost, Plato’s Cave

September 6, 2012

I am reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He wrote it when he was blind.  Does that mean that he was more cognizant of the eternal truths of the world, free from distraction by one of his senses?  That’s what the Greeks thought of poets, and thus, Homer was blind.

I guess Milton found his way out of Plato’s cave, that dark place where unenlightened men see the shadows of truth dancing on the walls.  But Plato banned poets from the ideal republic:  He was always more about power than justice or truth anyway.

Lots of people have commented that Satan is by far the most interesting character in Milton’s epic poem, but I find myself quite taken with Adam and Eve. 

They are quite the humanist pair:  Adam appears before the angel Raphael, come to warn him against Satan, with appropriate humility, but quite confident and stately in his naked beauty.  I guess Milton only attached the notion of idolatry, against which he railed, to costume, gold, temples, and the like, while it seems to me quite possible to idolize, rather than idealize, the human form.  Anyway, the two really do love each other, apparently without sin as of yet.

Satan is the tormented soul, and not because he is forced to lie about on a lake of fire after his abortive coup d’etat in heaven.  He has a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, and he can’t stop plotting.  The sight of Adam and Eve, happy in Eden, drives him to a frenzy of rage and jealousy, and what could he do?  He has free will…that’s how it had to be.

I was wondering while reading if Plato could have known of the Old Testament, but my digging indicates that it is improbable.  The book wasn’t translated into Greek until long after Plato’s death, and though there must have been Jews passing through Athens, it is hard to imagine Plato chatting with them in the Agora.  Certainly, he could have known of myths and tales from the east, some of which – The Flood, the Garden of Eden – are common to many traditions.  Eastern thinking, art, and cults were very influential in Greek thought.

The Garden of Eden strikes me as a sort of inverse of Plato’s cave.  The inhabitants have no ‘knowledge’:  they must not eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but they are happy, paradisically so.  When they gain knowledge at the urging of Satan/Serpent, they are beset by sin, lust, and pain.  They are cast out into the world by God.  Wouldn’t Plato have vomited at the thought that knowledge would bring pain and disaster rather than serenity and peace?   But I don’t think he had a notion of sin that needed to be justified.

In the end, however, I find that I am sympathetic to the scripture’s view.  That is, the Greeks may have invented Tragedy, but when it comes to the Old Testament and Plato, he seems naive, while the story of Eden hits on some deeply felt sense that by gaining the world, and all its knowledge, we have lost something.  Even if it’s not something we want back now.


Melancholy’s Anatomy

August 14, 2012

The Anatomy of Melancholy was first published in 1621, and became a best-seller for centuries thereafter.  I first heard of it as a young boy leafing though a volume of synopses of classics:  how can you possibly summarize this book?  I was intrigued, and kept it in mind, if only because of its title.

Years later, in the bowels of the university library, I came upon a beautiful old edition, with gilt-edged pages, and checked it out; even read some it.  I remember the night I did so very well as I was very melancholy.  It was not what I thought, but it probably was what I needed, if only I had realized it!

The book is a thorough discussion of the affliction of melancholy, from which Burton suffered, but if you think that it is a dry medical or philosophical treatise, you are wrong.  The theme is merely the armature upon which the author winds his observations about anything and everything, and all with prose that is, once you catch on to his style, outrageous, over the top, funny, and sometimes profound.  If I had read Burton’s introduction, Democritus to the Reader, (he styles himself Democritus Junior)I would have realized that much of his intent was humorous, which is not immediately obvious when you begin to read.

In fact, one’s first impression of this book is liable to be that the author was mad!  He lays out a meticulous and detailed classification system and index, and proceeds to ignore it at will.  Digressions and lengthy remarks on other authors, mostly ancient, are the norm.  And when Burton hits on a theme that agitates him, he let’s loose with volleys of invective that are a joy to read.

I would love to form a club that meets once a week to read aloud from The Anatomy in a public place, with the intention of completing the book in however long it takes.  I can think of no better tribute to this incredible work than to force people to listen to it, willingly or no, for a few moments in their hum drum daily routine.

From the Introduction:

Hippocrates relates at large in his Epistle to Damegetus, wherein he doth express, how coming to visit him one day, he found Democritus in his garden at Abdera, in the suburbs, under a shady bower, with a book on his knees, busy at his study, sometimes writing, sometimes walking. The subject of his book was melancholy and madness; about him lay the carcases of many several beasts, newly by him cut up and anatomised; not that he did contemn God’s creatures, as he told Hippocrates, but to find out the seat of this atra bilis, or melancholy, whence it proceeds, and how it was engendered in men’s bodies, to the intent he might better cure it in himself, and by his writings and observation teach others how to prevent and avoid it. Which good intent of his, Hippocrates highly commended: Democritus Junior is therefore bold to imitate, and because he left it imperfect, and it is now lost, quasi succenturiator Democriti, to revive again, prosecute, and finish in this treatise.

…Hippocrates asked the reason why he laughed. He told him, at the vanities and the fopperies of the time, to see men so empty of all virtuous actions, to hunt so far after gold, having no end of ambition; to take such infinite pains for a little glory, and to be favoured of men; to make such deep mines into the earth for gold, and many times to find nothing, with loss of their lives and fortunes. Some to love dogs, others horses, some to desire to be obeyed in many provinces, and yet themselves will know no obedience. Some to love their wives dearly at first, and after a while to forsake and hate them; begetting children, with much care and cost for their education, yet when they grow to man’s estate, to despise, neglect, and leave them naked to the world’s mercy. Do not these behaviours express their intolerable folly? When men live in peace, they covet war, detesting quietness,  deposing kings, and advancing others in their stead, murdering some men to beget children of their wives. How many strange humours are in men! When they are poor and needy, they seek riches, and when they have them, they do not enjoy them, but hide them under ground, or else wastefully spend them. O wise Hippocrates, I laugh at such things being done, but much more when no good comes of them, and when they are done to so ill purpose. There is no truth or justice found amongst them, for they daily plead one against another, the son against the father and the mother, brother against brother, kindred and friends of the same quality; and all this for riches, whereof after death they cannot be possessors. And yet notwithstanding they will defame and kill one another, commit all unlawful actions, contemning God and men, friends and country. They make great account of many senseless things, esteeming them as a great part of their treasure, statues, pictures, and such like movables, dear bought, and so cunningly wrought, as nothing but speech wanteth in them, [238]and yet they hate living persons speaking to them. Others affect difficult things; if they dwell on firm land they will remove to an island, and thence to land again, being no way constant to their desires. They commend courage and strength in wars, and let themselves be conquered by lust and avarice; they are, in brief, as disordered in their minds, as Thersites was in his body. And now, methinks, O most worthy Hippocrates, you should not reprehend my laughing, perceiving so many fooleries in men; for no man will mock his own folly, but that which he seeth in a second, and so they justly mock one another. The drunkard calls him a glutton whom he knows to be sober. Many men love the sea, others husbandry; briefly, they cannot agree in their own trades and professions, much less in their lives and actions.

When Hippocrates heard these words so readily uttered, without premeditation, to declare the world’s vanity, full of ridiculous contrariety, he made answer, that necessity compelled men to many such actions, and divers wills ensuing from divine permission, that we might not be idle, being nothing is so odious to them as sloth and negligence. Besides, men cannot foresee future events, in this uncertainty of human affairs; they would not so marry, if they could foretell the causes of their dislike and separation; or parents, if they knew the hour of their children’s death, so tenderly provide for them; or an husbandman sow, if he thought there would be no increase; or a merchant adventure to sea, if he foresaw shipwreck; or be a magistrate, if presently to be deposed. Alas, worthy Democritus, every man hopes the best, and to that end he doth it, and therefore no such cause, or ridiculous occasion of laughter.


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